Dark Days on Black Mesa

The Hopi want one of the largest coal mines in North America to stop using their groundwater. If springs and wells continue to dry up, they say, their ancient culture may disappear, too.

"It is important for Peabody not to waste the water because that is our only source," says Dalton Taylor, a 70-year-old rancher who regularly makes lengthy pilgrimages to far-flung sacred sites.

Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman, believes that water remains the Hopi's vital link to their past. Since he left the council in 1993, he's been on a mission to educate his people about the importance of their water.

"I really want us to go back to honor, respect and trust the ancient wisdom; to go back to our relationship with water," Masayesva says. "Water is sacred. Water is a blessing."

Peabody says the Hopi claims are nonsense. The company acknowledges that the water table will drop during the life of its mine. But the coal will all be mined within 30 years, and Peabody executives promise groundwater will be replenished within a decade of the mine's closure.

The company cites several hydrogeological studies that indicate Peabody's groundwater use is not drying up springs. The company blames climatic changes for variations in spring and wash flows that concern Hopi farmers and ranchers.

"The evidence continues to support that there is really no significant impact," says Peabody's vice president of operations Gary Melvin.

In the middle of the fray is Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. The former Arizona governor is saying nothing about the contentious issue. His department supports a proposal to build a water pipeline from Lake Powell to Peabody's coal mine and to communities on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. The pipeline would provide Peabody another water source for its slurry line and bring renewable water supplies to Hopi and Navajo communities.

But the department's proposal would also require the Hopi to pay $75 million or more to get Lake Powell surface water through 90 miles of pipeline to Peabody's mine and farther to the dozen Hopi villages arrayed across the southern edge of Black Mesa.

While the prospect of Lake Powell water for Peabody and the Hopi villages sounds alluring, Hopi resistance is mounting.

"They want us to mortgage our grandchildren's future to solve a problem that is not caused by us," says Vernon Masayesva.

Masayesva is urging the Tribal Council to reject the pipeline plan and focus on conservation and development of other water resources, including obtaining rights to 50,000 acre-feet per year of Colorado River water.

At the same time, Masayesva says the tribe must pressure Babbitt and Peabody to cease groundwater pumping. The tribe should be prepared to take legal steps that include shutting down the mine, he says.

There are indications that Babbitt has the authority to force Peabody off the groundwater and that the Hopi have the legal power to close the mine.

Former secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall approved the Peabody coal lease in 1966, but only after adding a key stipulation. Under that provision, if Peabody's wells are found to be "endangering the supply of underground water," the Interior secretary may order Peabody to find another water source at its "sole expense."

During a phone interview from his office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Udall says that Babbitt should protect the Hopi.

It is time, Udall says, for Babbitt "to champion the best solution for the Indians."

If Bruce Babbitt follows that advice, he will run head-on into one of the most powerful industrial consortiums in the United States.

Peabody Western Coal Company is the hub of a prodigious industrial engine that has fueled growth and development in the Southwest for 30 years.

Peabody is a subsidiary of a British multinational corporation, The Energy Group, which is rapidly increasing its investment in U.S. utility companies.

Peabody clears profits of $60 million to $70 million a year from its Indian coal-mine leaseholds, according to Hopi chairman Ferrell Secakuku. A Peabody spokeswoman calls that estimate "overstated."

It is charitable to say that Peabody got a great deal on its initial coal leases with the Hopi and Navajo tribes, paying each tribe 3.3 percent royalty, about half the royalty rate elsewhere at the time. Peabody also dodged an assortment of taxes.

Then there's the groundwater, which Peabody initially got at incredibly low rates. The Navajo initially were paid $5 per acre-foot of water while the Hopi received a mere $1.67 per acre-foot for the groundwater that continues to be pumped from 2,000 feet below the surface at an astounding rate of 2,000 to 4,500 gallons per minute. The rates were renegotiated in 1987 to reflect the market value of the water--Peabody says it now pays an average of $3.2 million per year for 3,800 acre-feet of water, for an average of $840 per acre-foot.

Peabody operates two adjacent mines on Black Mesa under leases with the tribe.

The Black Mesa Mine supplies coal fuel for the 1,580-megawatt Mohave Generating Station, operated by Southern California Edison. Once it is separated from the coal, the Hopi water is used as a coolant in the power plant. Other owners of the power plant include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Nevada Power Company and Arizona's Salt River Project.

The second mine, called Kayenta, is dedicated to the Navajo Generating Station located near Page. Peabody ships about seven million tons of coal each year to that 2,310-megawatt plant via a 78-mile-long electric railway.

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